Baltimore's genteel theater community is embroiled in a bruising legal fight over plans to stage the wholesome Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "State Fair" in January.
After deciding the show's quality was not adequate and might be underfinanced, the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA) removed it from the Mechanic Theatre schedule, replacing it with Chita Rivera in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."
"State Fair" producers fired back with a letter accusing the center of defrauding subscribers and jeopardizing the show's 25-city tour. And, in what was construed as a particularly nasty move, they also mailed copies to people the BCPA considers potential business partners.
The producers sued the performing arts center two weeks ago for more than $1 million in U.S. District Court in New York City, seeking to get the show back on the schedule. This week, BCPA countersued in federal court in Baltimore, claiming the producers' letter was libelous and asking a judge to declare that no contract ever existed.
In the theater business, shows come and go -- canceled with frequency by producers or theaters -- for lots of reasons, said Hope Quackenbush, a BCPA board member who retired in 1993 after 15 years as the Mechanic's managing director. But suing over such cancellations is almost unheard of, she said.
"This is really an aberration, I want to tell you," she said. "Nobody wins by suing."
Brian Liddicoat, general manager of the Mechanic, characterized it as a "family feud."
The producers, Robert Franz and Philip Langner, had two other shows this year at the Mechanic -- "Shirley Valentine" and "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe."
But the musical "just didn't fit into the style of our subscription series this year," Mr. Liddicoat said. "It had been promised to us as a pre-Broadway tour. It would not go onto Broadway in its present condition."
In April, BCPA touted "State Fair" in a letter to potential subscribers. Staged to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the film premiere, the show would feature John Davidson, Donna McKechnie, Andrea McArdle and Kathryn Crosby, the letter said.
In the center's dealings with the producers, however, plans for the show were always tentative, according to BCPA. A verbal agreement gave representatives of the performing arts center the right to see a staged performance before committing to the show, BCPA says.
It also required that the producers secure Broadway rights and obtain at least $4.5 million in financing. They did neither, according to court records. Both sides say no written contract ever was signed.
But an attorney for the producers insists there was a "firm deal."
"None of those things were conditions," said New York lawyer Peter Herbert. "I think the best evidence is the manner in which they advertised and promoted their own tickets. People subscribed based upon the advertised productions."
But the two-week run in Baltimore was near the end of the "State Fair" calendar, and there was concern about whether the show was financed sufficiently to survive that long. Besides, the BCPA and Mechanic always print a disclaimer with their literature that says shows, performers and dates are subject to change without notice, said Rebecca Katz, marketing director for the Mechanic.